If you think you’ve seen this before, you have. The Wildcats are still playing the base 4-2-5 that easily morphs into a 4-3 against more traditional, non-spread sets, it’s still performing among the top of the Big 12 across the special teams spectrum and its offense is a downhill, run-based scheme that values blocking, vertical rushing and being able to out-execute an opponent. Really, the major difference between Kansas State this season and the KSU teams that have challenged for conference crowns is a handful of points, additional youth and the lack of a truly dynamic threat behind center, like that of Collin Klein, Josh Freeman, Michael Bishop, Jake Waters and others.
Keep in mind, this K-State team lost at Oklahoma State 36-34 after having the Cowboys down most of the game, lost by seven to TCU the following week, and then dropped a 31-24 decision to Baylor. In fairness, though, those scores have to be weighed against defeats like the 23-9 loss at Texas and the 59-44 defeat to at Texas Tech.
It does appear Bill Snyder’s team is better at home this season than on the road, and that doesn’t bode as well for a WVU team just 1-3 away from Mountaineer Field, though that 1-3 mark might have held if the games were anywhere. What Kansas State is missing, according to Snyder, is better consistency on offense and defense. The Wildcats have had it in their program since 1989, Snyder’s first season and what essentially marks the beginning for K-State, which recorded just four winning seasons between 1937 and 1991, when Snyder got the ‘Cats to 7-4 after 1-10 and 5-6 marks his first two years. If you’re scoring at home, that’s 50 losing seasons against just four winning ones, with KSU reaching one bowl game before the Snyder era, with zero bowl wins before 1993.
But this year, the lack of consistency has hurt on both sides, namely on a defense used to shutting foes down that has instead allowed point totals like 33 to Louisiana Tech, not to mention 36, 52, 55 and 59 in league play. There has been lack of tackling, lack of assignment football, lack of the marquee attributes that have defined Kansas State. The challenge for West Virginia is to do what every Big 12 team aside from Kansas did and exploit the issues.
The problem for the Mountaineers is that they don’t pass it as well as the top shelf of the conference, and even the middling portions like Texas Tech. WVU will have to rely on its run, and run-based teams haven’t fared as well, with foes averaging just 158.8 yards per game on the ground against 283 in the air. KSU likes its physical style, and its run fits have been solid, for the most part. Where it gets in trouble is the big play through the air, and that’s an area West Virginia must be a bit better in, pending what K-State allows in alignment and looks.
West Virginia must avoid three things, those being turnovers to limit offensive possessions, getting behind in the chains in the ground game, and penalties on that side of the ball. WVU has been good at the first one, pretty decent at the second, but horrid with the third. The Mountaineers have been penalized 79 times this season, and it’s been poor at times on offense and defense. KSU, which shows much better team discipline on a routine basis, has just 59 penalties this season.
Those flags could go a long way to determining how far behind the chains, if at all, WVU is and how much of its running playbook it feels it can use. The KSU 4-2-5, used main for spreads, could rely on an added linebacker for this game, though West Virginia likes to run Wendell Smallwood out of single back formations. Does fifth-year defensive coordinator Tom Hayes allow the nickel back to remain in, or try and be more physical against the zone read with an added ‘backer? Can WVU’s line get a push against tackles Will Geary and Travis Britz, who have a combined 16 tackles for loss, which leads the league in the category with even front defenses.
Check the first couple quarters – West Virginia has started slow at times, and it might not get as many offensive possessions this game as typical because of Kansas State’s methodical offense – and see both how much push the Mountaineers can generate and where they are regarding distance on second and third downs. KSU isn’t a defense to try and fool opposing offenses with a myriad of looks or unique blitz packages and the like. The Wildcats like to get into the base set, get the right run fits, play physically and make tackles. It’ll be interesting to see if West Virginia can match the patience, and thus take the shorter yardage available, and if it can challenge K-State deep and in the intermediate when the opportunity is there.
The weather is expected to be in the mid-50s and partly cloudy without much wind and no rain, so West Virginia should have the right conditions to throw as needed. The contest won’t likely bog down into a grind-it-out match-up, though one has to like the Wildcats if that happens. On offense, KSU has yet again been able to run the football somewhat while averaging a balanced 170 yards on the ground and 174 in the air. It’s been a bit of a disappointing season in that regard, from a program used to truly putting up solid point total with Klein and Tyler Lockett to one trying simply to remain in games most times.
This appears to be a solid match-up for West Virginia, whose run fits and ability to play physically and tackle have been solid to quite good. But it will be imperative for West Virginia to be able to get to quarterback Joe Hubener, and we aren’t talking about the passing game. The 6-5, 211-pounder loves to play power and get behind a pair of backs, wait for an opening and then hit a seam and get vertical. Hubener doesn’t scramble well, and truly lacks much cutability, but can be physical, get behind his pads and exploit defenses on the ground.
The junior is second on the team with 598 rushing yards, and leads KSU with 13 scores on the ground. But he’s completed just 125 of 255 passes for 1,752 yards and nine TDs versus seven interceptions. His 49 percent completion rate is among the lowest of any starter in the Big 12, and his 6.87 yards per attempt is workmanlike at best, if not pedestrian. This isn’t a major threat in the passing game, though when they hit, like WVU, they hit long with a whopping nine players averaging more than 10 yards per reception.
Still, West Virginia’s primary issue here is to handle the power run, and not engage too much in what’s a more creative offense for Snyder than his standard issue defense and special teams units. Watch, again, the Mountaineer defensive line and how it matches a line Kansas State front starting four seniors and a redshirt freshman center in Dalton Risner who, somehow, beat out senior Reed Bergstrom. Risner was a preseason freshman All-American and has started all 11 games this season, winning the job in camp.If Risner can handle Kyle Rose on his own, with Rose not demanding a double team, the interior run will be easier to come by for KSU, especially behind blocking backs like Glenn Gronkowski, brother of Patriots tight end Rob.
This center-nose match-up is huge, both for K-State and within West Virginia’s odd stack. Rosse’s needing two blockers opens one-on-one matches for Noble Nwachukwu and Christian Brown or Eric Kinsey on the outside. If not, a guard can slide over, or focus on a rushing linebacker or safety, which will give the Wildcats far better numbers. Rose has a vast edge in experience, and will need to use that in his final career regular season start to give WVU the match-ups it needs most everywhere else within the front six, and in pressure packages.
On the back side, the Mountaineers seem to have an advantage, and have certainly faced far better passing attacks. It remains to be seen how far from their typical game plan Kansas State will stray in trying to get to 6-6; the Wildcats have a solid enough APR that they will be bowl eligible even at 5-7 (the NCAA announced it would allow 5-7 teams to play in bowls, if there weren’t enough 6-6 teams, as along as the APR [academic team scores] were high enough.) KSU is usually good for a trick play or two a game., so Tony Gibson’s defense must remain disciplined and try and match that of Kansas State.
The keys here are run fits, and playing assignment football. It goes back to the same set-up for the Texas game, and nearly the same for the season opener at Georgia Southern, though K-State is far more conventional. Run fit, gap control, have Rose force the double team , and be able to adequately tackle and cover in space without letting the trick play burn. That’s been the usual set-up for most of WVU’s running foes, but has flipped against the passing likes of TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma. Kansas State can’t offer much the Mountaineers haven’t seen, but they can offer good execution and effort, and the patience to stay with the game plan long after other clubs would be tempted to begin throwing. This will be, on this side, a true grind-it-out game, and will test West Virginia’s perseverance and fortitude.
On special teams, Kansas State and West Virginia have been atop the Big 12 standings in the vast majority of categories, including coverage, punt average and more. KSU placekicker Jack Cantele has hit all 29 PATs and 14 of 14 field goals, while WVU’s Josh Lambert rebounded to hit his last three against Iowa State. Punter Nick Walsh averages 41.3 yards per punt, and K-State’s coverages have been as good as expected, making for a significant challenge for the Mountaineers. Add in Snyder’s 3-0 mark against Holgorsen, and K-State being just one of two teams (Oklahoma) to sweep West Virginia in Big 12 play thus far, and this is going to be a very difficult end to the regular season.
Consider, too, the halftime score in this one as well. Kansas State has trailed at the break by double digits in five of its last six games (Kansas excluded) and typically rallied for a closer game. If West Virginia manages a lesser gap, it could be in for a tight contest. The game has been listed as about a one touchdown differential in favor of West Virginia.